With Serenity and Celebration, Experience the Enchanting Japanese New Year Traditions
Everyone gets to feel enthusiastic about starting a new year, feeling refreshed, and hoping for good times in the year ahead. In Japan, we have some traditional customs to welcome the New Year. Most of our New Year traditions are based on religious and folk tale beliefs, so they are very unique and sometimes very amusing. Let me introduce some of our New Year traditions for you to discover.
Hatsumode (the first visiting to shrines/temples)
The oddest thing about this event is that, even though most Japanese are atheists, hatsumode is the biggest religious event in the world. We go to the shrines and/or temples to give New Year greetings to the gods and the goddesses, and pray for a blessing of a long and healthy life, and peace and prosperity in the family. Many people wear traditional Japanese kimono when going to hatsumode since it has been formal wear for a long time. Also, it is nice to wear samue when visiting there since the collar makes your appearance solid and dignified like with kimono, but much easier to wear and comfortable.
Hatsuyume (fortune-telling of the first dream)
Also, I’m sure that the idea of the first dream of the New Year is very unique to many people. It is kind of a fortune-telling, but it is actually based on the favorite things of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the one who established the Shogunate of the Edo period. The best one is a dream of Mt. Fuji, the symbol of Japan. People have been worshipping the mountain since ancient times, believing that a mighty god lives there. He also worshipped the mountain. The second best dream is of hawks, because he loved hunting them and was famous for his hunting skills, being renowned as the best hunter. The third dream is a funny one. Because he loved to eat eggplants, it is said that you will have good luck if you dream of them.
Hatsuhinode (the first sunrise of the year)
According to the Shinto beliefs, there was a goddess of the sun, “Amaterasu Omikami” who is believed to be the ancestral deity of the imperial family since the time of the gods and the goddesses. Some people climb the mountains which are thought to be a boundary between this world and a sacred world, and watch the first sunrise to pray to her and the sun for good health and prosperity in the new year.
Osechi (the first feast of the year)
Osechi-ryori is a variety of traditional Japanese New Year's dishes. The festive dishes eaten on New Year's Day and the five seasonal festivals were called "osechiku," and they were offered to the gods. As this event spread to the general public during the Edo period, the dishes served on New Year's Day, the most important day of the year, came to be called "osechi-ryori. Interestingly, each dish has a meaning and wishes associated with them. For example,
They have long whiskers that, when cooked, resemble curved hips, which is a wish for longevity.
Since ancient times, black has been considered the color that wards off evil spirits. Beans also have the meaning of "diligent work" and are associated with the wish for diligence and good health.
Datemaki symbolizes intelligence because of its shape similar to a scroll or a book, and is associated with the wish for academic achievement.
Preparing osechi-ryori also shows the expression of offering the rest to the god of fire during the first three days of the new year. A whole family gathers together and has the first feast and wishes for a better year with a sense of solemnity.
Originally, "kamakura" was an event to pray for family safety, prosperous business, and a good harvest by offering money to the god of water enshrined inside the snow chamber, and as time went by, the event became a tourist attraction. The local people and many tourists join the festival by wearing hanten and having mochi, or rice cake, in a snow dome. There are various theories on the origin of the word "kamakura," one of them being that the snow chamber is the seat of the god, "kamikura(kami means god and kura means chamber)" and changed into "kamakura."
Ozoni (A traditional Japanese New Year’s soup dish)
The seasoning and ingredients for ozoni vary from region to region, but rice cakes are included in most regions. Mochi has long been a food eaten for celebrations and special occasions. It is said that it originated when rice cakes, taro, carrots, Japanese Daikon radish, and other ingredients offered to the Toshigami-sama were put into water that was drawn from a well or river at the beginning of the year, stewed over the first fire of the new year, and eaten on New Year's Day.
It is a traditional Japanese New Year decoration made by stacking two round rice cakes and placing an orange on top of them and is an offering to Toshigami-sama. Kagami means “mirror” in Japanese, and they were once thought to be where a god dwells because they reflect light and shine brightly. So, we also think that Kagamimochi is the place where Toshigami-sama live.
During the New Year, children are given small envelopes containing money, called “otoshidama” by their parents, grandparents, and relatives. This custom descended from the practice of distributing Kagami mochi where Toshigami-sama dwell as a wish for children’s safe growth in the coming year. After the Meiji era, gifts of money became more prevalent. I clearly remember my childhood at the time of New Year. During that time, I was very rich, obviously richer than my parents, and could afford as much candy as I wanted. That's one of the main reasons why we love New Year.
We have many interesting and “one-of-a-kind” traditions for the New Year. It is a unique and special experience to come to Japan and see or even participate in them. I’m sure you will love them and be attracted by the sacred experiences and delicious dishes. Our culture can be seen in our traditions and festivals, and you can learn many new things through them. Wearing samue is just another aspect of Japanese culture that you can experience for yourself!